Attacking Higher Education and our Defence

On Thursday, 18 March 2010 the leading article in the Independent explained the policy of the political class and the banks on the future of Higher Education. A member of staff at LSBU wrote a reply – a strong defence of Higher Edcuation.  

The Independent – “After a spending bonanza, universities have fat that can be trimmed”

The universities of England received the dreaded news yesterday, and for the overwhelming majority, it was as bad as they had feared. Almost three-quarters will see their funding for next year severely reduced or frozen in real terms – which elicited a furious response from lecturers' representatives and some vice-chancellors. Not that they had not been warned. With the NHS and schools assured that their budgets would be protected, higher education had been waiting for the axe to fall. But this does not make the experience any more tolerable. The universities have enjoyed a bonanza since Labour came to power; this is the first major reduction in funding for 13 years, and, whoever wins the election, it is unlikely to be the last. Higher education must share the national pain of austere times.

The distribution of funds announced by the Higher Education Funding Council for England yesterday offered some useful pointers about official thinking on this score. Worst hit, by and large, were the newer universities. The Russell Group of 20 leading establishments emerged less badly, while the top five universities for research – Oxford, Cambridge, University College London, Imperial College London and Manchester – together received one third of the funds available. This amounts to a blessing on the creation, or preservation, of an elite designed to hold its own with the world's best.

In the global world, this is as necessary as it is inevitable. But there are other pointers, too. Priority has been given to universities with specialist departments in science, maths and technology – subjects where Britain has long had a shortage of expertise, but which also tend to be more expensive to teach. If, as is forecast, the number of university places overall is set to fall, it is right that students are gently channelled into areas where skills are most needed. For all the complaints that will come from champions of the liberal arts, this is nothing like a wholesale redirection of funds, but a helpful nudge towards a higher education sector better tailored to the country's future requirements.

Nor is a decline in the number of university places necessarily a bad thing. The rapid expansion of tertiary education has been a success for this government, with applications continuing to rise, despite fee increases and, for most, less generous assistance from the state. But the Government's target of getting 50 per cent of school-leavers into higher education was always of dubious worth. A little more selectivity could help raise standards and reduce drop-out rates.

There is also an argument for speeding up the Browne review of student funding, with a view to freeing, or removing, the cap on tuition fees sooner than might have been envisaged. On the negative side, however, any decline in the number of places and any rise in fees risk leaving would-be students from poorer families at an even greater disadvantage than they already are.

The provision of more bursaries, an extension of needs-blind admission and better information about available grants should all help, but they will go only part of the way.  In the immediate future, higher education as a whole will have to look much more critically at how its spends its money – from the salary rises granted to many vice-chancellors in recent years, through the building projects that habitually run over budget, to the actual contact hours between teacher and student. After a period of comparative largesse, all universities must learn to do more with less.

A member of LSBU staff wrote this response

In your leader ‘Higher education, too, must adapt to more austere times’ (March 18) you argue that our HE institutions have been haemorrhaging money from mismanagement of ‘salary rises granted to many vice-chancellors in recent years, through [to] building projects that habitually run over budget, [and] the actual contact hours between teacher and student’.

Certainly, there have been poor investment decisions in this sector, inevitably given HE’s wholesale adoption of New Labour’s costly and doctrinaire ‘marketisation’ policies, which have frequently been translated both into colossally wasteful private finance initiatives to pay for capital building projects and ‘letting the market decide’ executive salaries to ensure our HE institutions ‘can pay for the talent’ to lead them (where have we heard that one before?). 

If you really want to target those who have enjoyed a ‘bonanza’, then you should focus your fire elsewhere. The Exchequer knows no bounds when it comes to pouring billions into bolstering the banks, naturally with zero regulatory concessions from these economic hoodlums in return, shelling out billions more for eventually abandoned, or ‘habitually’ overrunning, defence procurement programmes (defence will cost £38 billion this year alone), sanctioning the anachronistic renewal of Trident (£100 billion), so amply confirming, along with its post-colonial forays into Iraq and Afghanistan (cost since 2001 £9.5 billion), New Labour’s wholly delusional and extravagant view of our world role. Add in the slackly controlled IT projects, porous public finance initiative contracts (see Tube Line vs TfL and our schools and hospital building programmes) the ID cards fiasco - the list is truly endless – and we begin to get some more perspective.

But over and above this boundless profligacy, is the systemic injustice represented by the government’s total inability to make tax evaders pay up, evidenced by the yawning gap between tax owed and tax paid in Britain. Comprising of tax avoidance, using legal loopholes and tax evasion this tax gap could stand at £120 billion a year, according to the Tax Justice Network. Even the government’s own Revenue & Customs admits to £40 billion being avoided and evaded in addition to another £28 billion already identified as owed yet still unpaid Forget those piffling parliamentary shenanigans - this untaxed profiteering at the expense of the public purse is the true scandal!. Then we learn that in just 1 year the recession-savaged collective wealth of the UK's 1,000 richest people has staged a remarkable recovery, according to the Sunday Times Rich List. Their combined fortunes rose by more than £77bn since 2009 to £333.5bn, the biggest annual rise in the list's 22-year history!

Therefore, all this wasteful government resourcing when seen in relation to the ‘very relaxed relationship’ with the tax evading rich is highly relevant. For it is the ‘non elite’ majority of our universities, along with our once excellent FE colleges, who have had to do more and more, in real terms, with whatever ‘largesse’ they have received. With these latest cuts, as before with runaway executive pay, New Labour is busy buttressing social and economic inequality. Predictably, we learn that it will be the ‘elite universities’, led by education’s very own equivalent of a trickle down economist, that tirelessly oxymoronic proponent of privilege-based equality, Lord Patton, who are going to land the lion’s share of the cash. The only slightly less elite Russell Group has immediately joined Patton in salivating over the prospect of untrammelled student debt slavery with the (eventual) trebling of tuition fees. 

Meanwhile, that naive and less savvy majority of students, having been ‘gently channelled’ by the siren voices of Blair et al into embarking on, what has been for them, an already expensive education in order to better themselves, now discover they were fooled by a policy of ‘of dubious worth’ as New Labour’s once lauded, privilege-busting ‘weapon of mass higher education’ is revealed as yet another a dud.

But crucially, with this announcement it is those universities and FE colleges who answered the government’s call to ‘widen participation’ and recruited students accordingly who will suffer most. It is those lecturers who were ‘tasked’ with ‘adding value’ and ‘delivered’ against all the odds who will lose their jobs. It is those students already struggling to study while juggling low-paid jobs, along with their rising debts, whose education will deteriorate most markedly. And it is those universities, which you are too coy to name because you know you don’t have to, and their remaining students and lecturers, who will have to make do with less.

Entirely predictably, after such a ‘period of comparative largesse’, the elite will somehow learn to cope with making do with still more. And their ever so hard pressed vice chancellors are already passing round the port, because once this 800 year old cosy edifice of educational privilege is secured for another 500 years by uncapped tuition fees and capped student numbers, its elite funding naturally bankrolled by those of us who can’t actually evade tax, they know they can rely on a company (or bank) director, or shareholder pal in the City, doubtless in receipt of 18% share dividends, even in this recession strapped year, to identify that plum City directorship for them as one more just reward for one more socially divisive job - well done.



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